More research on rural schools

In the nation’s imagination, rural schools are usually typecast as homogenous, outdated, and identical.  In truth, there are an equal percentage of minority rural students as there are rural students period, around 20%.  As far as the antiquated myth goes, due to their distance from and limited access to many of the physical resources that urban and suburban areas enjoy (say teachers or advanced coursework), rural schools are often at the fore of digital learning initiatives. And perhaps the most misleading fallacy, rural schools are not identical.  Their virtues, as well as their challenges are site-specific.  Consider for example the disparate needs of effective ELL teachers in New Mexico versus Vermont, where the percentage ratio of rural minority students is 81.6: 2.6.   

Earlier this month, I blogged on the ease with which research entities overlook rural schools and the Department of Education’s highlighting of rural education for the month of August 2011.  In this entry, I’d like to discuss three papers dealing with rural schools, also released this month.  Though these reports have different angles on rural reform, four shared themes emerge: the need to build regional capacities and forge partnerships, attention to teacher recruitment and retention, flexibility in federally mandated reforms, and greater enrollment of rural students in post-secondary education.

In brief, the Center for American Progress’s (CAP) report, titled, Make Rural Schools a Priority, focuses on rural policy priorities for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Transforming the Rural South, produced by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), relates the challenges of southern states where the largest percentage of underperforming rural schools are located.  And the Education Commission of the States (ECS) issued a summary document of recommendations generated from their first ever, National Summit on the Role of Education in Economic Development in Rural America, May 4th 2011.

Why is building regional capacities so important for rural school districts that take great pride in their unique communities and cultivate identity from surroundings?  SCORE calls on school districts to form regional partnerships and pool intellectual resources, which will thus enable them to go after philanthropic and federal grants to advance their own home-grown school reform efforts, otherwise out of reach. ECS recommends partnerships between school districts, institutions of higher education, local municipalities, and businesses to foster academic and career alignment and a college-going culture.

Such partnerships can also help teacher recruitment and retention, which is of grave concern, as the average rural teacher makes only 86 cents to the urban teacher’s dollar—pay allegedly appropriate for the lower costs of living, in housing that is often substandard.  Districts must partner with others to recruit highly effective teachers who can serve as content specialists across district lines.  Both CAP and ETS advise that pipelines be built to recruit teachers and administrators for sparsely populated districts lacking their own capacity to do so.  This infrastructure can start in the postsecondary setting, where teacher prep programs would expose candidates to actual teaching settings in rural communities, a dual strategy to promote effectiveness, and one reminiscent of those recently released by the National Council on Teaching Quality (NCTQ). 

In rural areas where teacher recruitment is an ever-present issue, turning around schools by way of firing the entire teaching staff is a deeply flawed solution.  This being one of the Obama administration’s four Race to the Top turnaround strategies, it stands to reason that rural school districts require more flexibility in implementing reforms.  There are countless reform efforts that rural schools would benefit from, not limited to those aforementioned, like better bandwidth and dual-credit high school classes. What’s most pressing of course is that these issues stay at the fore of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s mind, and think-tanks alike, beyond the month of August.—Juile McCabe

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